Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the smartest speaker of them all? Amazon’s Alexa says she likes “all AIs.” Google Assistant can see the good in others, too, noting Alexas’s nice attributes, sexy blue lights and soothing voice. Apple’s Siri wouldn’t be caught dead answering that question. “Let’s talk about you, not me,” she says. In our latest Unwrapping the Secrets of SEO, we used the occasion of the release of Apple’s HomePod smart speaker to examine the increasingly crowded field and what it means for the world of search and content marketing.
Some 39 million American, or 16 percent, own at least one smart speaker, according to research from NPR and Edison Research. By the end of 2018, smart speaker penetration in Germany is expected to reach 26%, according to a global survey of 21,000 consumer conducted by Harris Interactive for Accenture. In the UK, it’s expected to reach 24%; in China, 33%; in India, 39%; and in the US, 37%.
Big numbers, yes. But should marketers care? Surveys of early adopters show they’re buying smart speakers mainly to listen to music and control other smart devices in the home. But the Harris study indicates smart speakers are expanding their horizons faster than many had anticipated: 58% of the smart speaker owners surveyed globally reported using their smartphones less for online purchases, and 56% used their smartphones less for informational searches. As we’ve noted before, the battle of the SERPs then becomes all the more important because smart speakers give a very narrow set of results – typically one. There are no runners-up.
Backing the right horse becomes all the more difficult for online marketers because it won’t just be a matter of who sells the most units. We found Apple’s HomePod ties users almost exclusively to the Apple ecosystem, closing the door on anyone who isn’t partnered with them. Amazon’s Echo devices are a bit more open, yet transactional queries almost exclusively point you to Amazon’s shopping network (Prime, Fresh, Pantry and Whole Foods). Google appeared the most rounded and agnostic.
To conduct our tests, we used Apple’s HomePod, released Feb. 9; a Google mini speaker and a Sonos Play One Alexa-enabled smart speaker. To put them through their paces, we created 115 questions – 46 seeking information, 19 attempting to initiate a transaction and 50 navigational. Questions varied from “Can you order a pepperoni pizza” to “Will Oprah win the next US presidential election?” Three people – an American woman, American man and an English-speaking man with a heavy Turkish accent – tested each device by asking the same questions at different times.
None of the platforms passed a 50% threshold for answering questions correctly or with relevant information, though Google came the closest at 44%.
For now, those who focus on navigational and transactional search have a little breathing room. All three devics performed abysmally with queries along these lines. With navigational search, marketers are rushing to compete here by creating voice-activated apps, or so-called skills. Local news outlets and travel and transportation sites like Uber and Lyft in particular are rushing to be heard on smart speakers.
Where the SERP wars get really interesting is with informational search queries. While such searches are hard to monetize, optimizing SEO for informational searches is key for brand recognition and to maintain authority online. The success rate for HomePod informational queries was 11%; for Google mini, 54%; and for the Alexa-enabled Play One, 30%.
Apple HomePod’s voice-capturing features were extraordinary. We had difficulty trying to communicate with Google mini or Sonos while playing loud music, forcing us to repeat ourselves and raise our voices to be heard. This absolutely never happened with the HomePod and its super sensitive receptors.
Our pleasure with the $349 price HomePod ended there. Given its high price tag, we expected Siri to show a lot more smarts than we found in our tests. Even accounting for Apple’s pitch that it’s tuned to be best-sounding smart speaker, in our opinion the answer to “Hey Siri, which is the highest mountain” should never be “The ‘Highest Mountain’ is an album by saxophonist Clifford Jordan, which was recorded in West Germany’.”
More times than not, our questions were met by a curt, “I’m not going there” or I don’t have the answer to that.”
Given the lead the Amazon already has in the market, with Google nipping at the online retailer’s heels, we’re hoping that an Apple update will solve some of its deficiencies at answering queries beyond the basics of weather, sports and Apple-related products.
Amazon dominates e-commerce, so it’s no surprise that Alexa is the go-to device for transactional queries. It will save items to your grocery list, or put a pair of patent leather pumps in your Amazon shopping cart. But Alexa was less helpful with questions like “Which holiday destination is trending for this time of the year?” The answer we got each time: “It’s not a federal holiday.”
There’s a lot of room for advancement with Alexa when it comes to answering questions via natural-language search. We found that Alexa is much better at handling navigational queries than informational searches. Challenging Alexa to figure out how to remove a coffee stain led to step-by-step directions, along with a Tide commercial – but those types of answers were few and far between. The informational queries Alexa did return were lifted from Wikipedia — a solid source of information, but perhaps not the best place to get every answer.
Google Home fills in the holes left by the other devices for search. As the world’s leading search engine, its smart speaker has access to a better algorithm to give quality or accurate information. In addition to basic queries, the device is an entry point to Google Maps, Google Shopping and Google Play. All of those things combined makes its smart speaker capable of answering a wide range of complex questions. The one drawback is that it gets stumped by questions about the entertainment industry, so it might not be the best source to finding out when the next season of Stranger Things will be released.
We had one last question for the devices: What is the meaning of life?
They all returned the same answer: 42. It left us scratching our heads until we sleuthed it out in a desktop search. We found that 42 is a reference to “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” in which the computer Deep Thought claimed “42” is the “meaning of life, the Universe, and everything.”
It looks like it’ll take a bit more time for voice assistants to become as reliable as the search engines we use for desktop and mobile, but if they evolve as expected, more of us may be giving up our keyboards for an all-knowing voice to help us navigate life.
The good news is that with the introduction of the Sonos One device, we may one day have the same choices in using search engines as we have on mobile and desktop devices. While Sonos initially includes only Amazon, the company says it plans to update its software later this year to add Google Assistant and Apple AirPlay 2 for music, at least.